Basquiat riding death

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Riding with death, 1988, Acrylic and pencil on canvas, 249×289 cm, Private collection

Born in 1960 in New York City, Jean-Michel Basquiat, a young African-American artist, experienced a meteoric rise from 1980, after making a name for himself as a street art artist. In those same years, he became friends with the painter Andy Warhol and at the same time entered his « Factory »‘ (studio). Warhol became his mentor, broadening his artistic culture and also trying to keep Basquiat away from the hardest drugs he was using at the time. After Andy Warhol’s death in 1987, Basquiat sinks into a deep malaise and produces few new works. A year later, he resumed painting but died suddenly on August 12, 1988, at the age of 27, of an overdose of heroin and cocaine.

« Riding with death » is one of Basquiat’s last paintings. It depicts a black man riding on the skeleton of a horse. The man’s body appears to be decomposing with flesh still visible while his arms are reduced to skeletal form. He turns his back as the horse turns his head towards the spectator and looks at him with empty eyes. These very simple figures, almost reduced to silhouettes, stand out against a plain, slightly golden background. The range of colours is very narrow (black, white, ochre and slightly golden brown). The composition is clear with the two figures contained in a triangle.

This purified composition stands out from the painter’s previous works, which offered abundant compositions with very vivid colours.

Jean-Michel Basquiat was inspired, for his painting, by a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci representing a woman riding a skeleton. The triangle composition also refers to Leonardo da Vinci (e.g. the Virgin and Saint Anne in the Louvre) as well as to many Renaissance painters who made extensive use of this type of composition. It evokes calm and harmony and has been perpetuated throughout Western painting.

Leonardo da Vinci , Two allegories of Envy
Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin, Jésus and Anne, 1502-1513, Oil on wood, Paris, musée du Louvre

The golden background is reminiscent of the golden background of the icons and gives a religious and solemn side to the painting, which is reinforced by what looks like a halo on the head of the figure. The highly stylized drawing of the characters evokes the characters of rock art, especially African.

Rock paintings of Mutoko, Zimbabwe

Death is one of Basquiat’s major themes, along with the condition of black Americans. In this painting, he brings the two subjects together. Death, of course, with the figure of the emaciated man and the horse. These representations of the skeleton ran throughout the painter’s work (see the skull, above) and are taken from a book on anatomy (Gray’s anatomy ) that his mother had given him after his accident, at the age of seven, when he was playing in the street and had been hit by a car.

When it comes to racial discrimination, the painter plays with references. At the same time he draws his inspiration from the codes of Western painting (references to the Renaissance) and, at the same time, he treats his figures with a certain « primitivism », stemming from his African culture. Moreover, the rider is clearly a black man and he is in the centre of the canvas. This is perhaps a way for the artist to say: I, the black man, with my « naive » way of painting (which was regularly reproached by critics), am at the centre of the painting (in a universal way). It is obvious that Basquiat identifies with this rider who rides death. He himself has already experienced it, with the death of Warhol, but also that of a certain number of his acquaintances, decimated by the AIDS virus. He himself knows he is on probation, consumed by his drug use. Moreover, the figure of the horse to symbolize Death, is perhaps an allusion to the word « horse » (horse) which designates heroin in slang. Faced with this presentiment, Basquiat seems far away. Indeed, the rider turns his back on the spectator, he is already looking elsewhere (towards nothingness?) while the horse is looking straight at us. It is likely that the painter is also warning us: beware, death is on the prowl and heroin is a danger. For one might think that the use of the triangle in the composition does not only evoke the harmony of the Renaissance but also the danger sign of urban signage. Moreover, the painter was often inspired by motifs from popular and urban culture (comics, advertising, signage, etc.). As a result, there is a kind of ambivalence in the artist’s message, for whom death is a danger and, at the same time, the hope of a newfound harmony and peace.

In this painting, Jean-Michel Basquiat makes, perhaps without knowing it, a kind of will. He asserts his predominance as a black artist over the entire history of painting, he foresees his tragic end and warns us of the dangers that lie in wait for us. He gives us a kind of warning: White or black, Death will take us…

And you, what do you think about it ?

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